The United States Navy submarine reactor program has a record of achievement and respect dating back to the early 1950s. In a field full of failed projects begun with high expectations, the Naval Reactors program is worthy of admiration and study. In this issue of AEI, we will focus on several early technical decisions that played a large role in shaping the nuclear power industry.
There was never any doubt who was in charge of the Navy’s nuclear reactor program. Hyman G. Rickover, despite his diminutive physical presence, made it quite clear to everyone within shouting distance that he was the man who could turn paper ideas into functioning nuclear engines for ship propulsion. From March 1946, when he was first assigned to study nuclear technology at Oak Ridge, until his forced retirement in 1982, Rickover’s name was synonymous with navy nuclear power.
“Beyond Competition” Technology
Rickover picked what might be called a “killer app”, when he decided to use a submarine as his vessel for the first nuclear propulsion plant. (In computer lingo, a “killer app” is an application that makes a new technology so useful that it is worth the effort and expenditure required to switch from older machines.)
Unlike combustion, nuclear fission does not require oxygen. Uranium also has about two million times as much energy per unit mass as oil. Those two characteristics made the potential advantages of nuclear power for undersea vessels overwhelming. The idea of being able to produce an engine for a sub which could run at high power without oxygen for an indefinite period of time was too important to ignore.
Even with the huge technical advantages, Rickover had to work steadily for more than four years just to gain the high level commitment he needed to create the program. Starting a revolutionary technological program is never easy.
Several AEI issues have asked the question, “Why no follow-through?” Obviously, in the case of nuclear submarines, follow-through has been a strength rather than a missing element. Since the Nautilus first reported “Underway on nuclear power” on January 17, 1955, American shipyards have produced nearly 200 nuclear submarines. These submarines have logged more than 100 million miles of operation in some of the world’s most remote areas and in some of the most harsh environmental conditions on the earth.
In the earliest days, Admiral Rickover and his organization struggled to overcome many technical barriers, any one of which might have stopped the program. By gathering some of the most talented and dedicated engineers available and by motivating them with the notion that they were doing something of vital importance, Rickover built an almost unstoppable team.
By making decisions and sticking to them, he avoided the expensive changes in direction that plagued failed efforts like the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program. By demanding excellence, he made sure that his engines worked as he said they would.
The nuclear submarine program is not perfect and never has been. This issue of AEI, however, is about the program’s early technical decision points and how they contributed to the long term success of the program.